A response to The Harper Review’s winter 2024 proposition, “We should never forget the past.”
When General Eisenhower visited the Ohrdruf concentration camp on April 12, 1945, he ordered his liberating army to start filming. The footage would spark a massive media campaign that spread stories of the horror of the Holocaust to the American public and eventually the judges at the Nuremberg trials. But before the film made its way to the United States, the army hosted screenings of the documentary footage for surrendered German soldiers and civilians. The film was to be used as part of the liberating forces’ “denazification” program: the Allied powers’ concentrated effort to purge Germany and Austria of Nazi ideology. The German soldiers and civilians, many of whom were unaware of the concentration camp next door, hid their faces when shown the film; they realized their immediate stake in the event. The reason that the Germans couldn’t bear to watch the film is the same reason that guaranteed the permanence of their memory of the Holocaust. There would be no need to tell them to “never forget the past.” The only context in which the phrase makes sense, then, is when it is directed towards those who have no obvious reason to remember.
The Eisenhower footage was not the end of Holocaust cinema. In the following decades, the greatest filmmakers saw in the Holocaust fodder for great stories. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Life is Beautiful, The Pianist, and Schindler’s List have become universally lauded Academy Award–winning classics. But these films’ greatness lies not in their sensitivity to tragedy, or at least not primarily. Their appeal is the same as any other popular movie: they’re entertaining. Unlike Eisenhower’s documentary footage, these films need not be forced down the audience’s throats and past the hands that cover their eyes; instead, they win Academy Awards. The fact that the Holocaust is horrific guarantees its transposition onto the silver screen.
It is precisely when suffering becomes entertaining that we’re told to “never forget.” But sincere remembrance does not happen at the end credits, it begins there. Today, the duty to remember our past is more difficult than it was for the Germans neighboring Ohrdruf: not only must we have the strength to watch, but also to know why we’re watching.
Every Passover, my family and all Jews try to make sense of a tradition that has ritualized the command to “never forget.” We all know the story of Moses, the plagues, and the parting of the Red Sea, but we also must remind ourselves why we have to keep on telling this same story in the same way every year. The Haggadah, the book read every Passover containing the story of Exodus, tells of a wise child who asks, “What do we learn from this story?” This child represents the good Hebrew school student, who realizes that the point of the holiday is more complicated than simple remembrance. This child mirrors the responsible cinephile, cognizant of the story’s entertainment value but willing to interrogate the film beyond its aesthetic criteria. The Haggadah also writes of the child who doesn’t know how to ask such a question, and who is usually given a pass because he is too young to understand the holiday. All we can do with this child is tell him the story again, and hope that he enjoys it enough to ask why we tell it next year, in Jerusalem.